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North West Highlands Geopark UNESCO Revalidation Visit

In mid July the North West Highlands Geopark hosted its UNESCO revalidation mission. Every four years UNESCO Global Geoparks are quality assessed by UNESCO and this year it was the North West Highland’s turn. All aspects of the management structure, strategic plans and activities are under scrutiny so Geopark volunteers and staff took on the very serious responsibility to ensure our region receives a green card from UNESCO. The inspectors are drawn by UNESCO from a pool of experienced Geopark Coordinators from around the world and so this year we were pleased to welcome Asier Hilario Orus from The Basque Coast Global Geopark in Spain and Yongmun Jeon from Jeju Island Global Geopark in Korea.

The mission took place over five days and included meetings with 34 different stakeholder groups from communities in Lochbroom, Coigach, Assynt, Scourie, Kinlochbervie, Durness and Tongue community council areas. The Visit Scotland visitor advisor team did a phenomenal job of promoting our Geopark and the region, even speaking Spanish and talking about the Spanish Geoparks. In each community we met with development trusts, business owners and stakeholders such as the John Muir Trust and the Coigach Assynt Living Landscape Partnership. All of whom impressed the inspectors with the sheer volume of work which is being undertaken with such a low population. Within the 2000km2 of the Geopark the population density is around 1.1 people per km2. The definition of sparsely populated in Europe is anything below 12.5 so we really on the edge but the recurring theme which shone through was that the communities are doing a huge amount of work themselves towards creating their own sustainable future.

The major recommendation at the revalidation in 2015 was to stabilise the financial situation for the Geopark management body, North West Highlands Geopark Ltd; a community run social enterprise and charity. In 2017 a highly successful community crowdfunding effort raised over £30,000 toward keeping the organisation afloat and allowed the charity to continue to develop its own income steams such as the Rock Stop visitor centre, Geotours and sales of booklets. This is a highly unusual situation among UNESCO Global Geoparks, typically they are financed by governments, so the team were anxious to demonstrate that through volunteer efforts we have resolved the situation ourselves. After spending a few days immersed in deep conversation with all the different stakeholders, the inspectors came to the conclusion that the communities should be incredibly proud of their achievements. Asier Hilario, Scientific Director for the Basque Coast UNESCO Global Geopark said; “We cannot understand how a government couldn’t support this Geopark financially”.

However, the inspectors will now submit a report to UNESCO and the final decision will be made by the UNESCO Executive Board in the coming months.

North West Highlands Geopark Chair, Michael Simpson said “We have one of the most incredible landscapes in the world, UNESCO recognise that, but we have also worked tirelessly and against the odds over the past four years to ensure the region keeps its internationally recognised UNESCO Global Geopark status. The inspectors seemed to recognise this and although we know its not their decision to make, we feel confident that we have done everything we possibly could to pass this revalidation, I am deeply grateful to the Geopark team for their hard work and effort organising and conducting this revalidation mission.”

However, the inspectors will now submit a report to UNESCO and the final decision will be made by the UNESCO Executive Board in the coming months.

North West Highlands Geopark Chair, Michael Simpson said “We have one of the most incredible landscapes in the world, UNESCO recognise that, but we have also worked tirelessly and against the odds over the past four years to ensure the region keeps its internationally recognised UNESCO Global Geopark status. The inspectors seemed to recognise this and although we know its not their decision to make, we feel confident that we have done everything we possibly could to pass this revalidation, I am deeply grateful to the Geopark team for their hard work and effort organising and conducting this revalidation mission.”

Geopark Coordinator, Dr Laura Hamlet said; “I thoroughly enjoyed the visit; the inspectors were able to give me a huge amount of constructive criticism and I think the whole team found their advice invaluable. Everyone really pulled out all the stops to make time to meet and discuss our Geopark with the inspectors and really did our region proud”.

Geopark Geologist, Pete Harrison said; “as ever it is a joy to share the unique geological stories with visitors, particularly two respected Scientific Directors from very different regions. As a volcanic structure, Jeju Island is just a million years old so we really entertained our Korean delegate with our three billion year old rocks. We don’t need to worry about the quality of our landscape one bit but we do need to work to continue to tell its stories well and inspire more people to think about the physical processes which drive our planet. It is through understanding how our planet works that we will be able to tackle the colossal issues of climate change on behalf of future generations.”